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Date: 1996
Encyclopedia of World Cultures
From: Encyclopedia of World Cultures(Vol. 4: Europe. )
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1240L

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Page 220


ETHNONYMS: Saami, Sámi, Sapmi; formerly Fenni, "Finn," Lapp


Identification. Saami speak various dialects of the Saami language, and/or the national languages, within northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia's Kola Peninsula, and nominally follow the religions of the dominant society. "Sapmi," or "Same-eatnam," refers to traditional Saami Regions others have called "Lapland." The terms "Lapp" and "Lapland" were used mainly by non-Saami, and the derivations of both "Lapp" and "Saami" are contested. Contemporary areas designated "Finnmark" and "Lappmark" constitute but a small portion of Sapmi.

Location. Saami inhabit much of the tundra, taiga, and coastal zones north of 62° N in Norway and Sweden, 66° N in Finland, and 67° N on the Kola peninsula. These arctic and subarctic regions enjoy a climate moderated by the gulf stream, with winters seldom dipping below —40° C (in the far north, without sun for up to two months), and summers occasionally reaching 25° C (sometimes with midnight sun for up to two months).

Demography. There have been no adequate censuses of Saami. Any estimate of their population depends on the operational definition of Saamihood as much as on quality of sampling, but they number very roughly 1 percent of the Populations in their overarching countries. Representative figures around 1982 suggest a total of 40,000 to 60,000 in Norway, 15,000 in Sweden, 4,000 in Finland, and less than 2,000 in Russia—of which about 70 percent speaks Saami and 10 percent breeds reindeer. All in all, the roughly 7,000 Saami dependent on reindeer management as a livelihood herd and husband around 450,000 head. While the majority of Saami resides in the traditional northern regions, the largest concentrations of Saami are today in their national capital cities, to which migration has been most intense in the period since World War II.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Saami language is in the Western Division of the Finno-Ugric Branch of the Uralic Family. Its dosest linguistic relatives include Finnish, Estonian, Livonian, Votic, Veps, Mordvin, Mari, and Permian. Northern, southern, and eastern dialects of Saami mirror traditional habits of resource utilization, cutting across contemporary national boundaries. Saami inflection (of nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adjectives) involves infixes, from alteration of intersyllabic consonant values as well as suffixes. Morphology is highly productive through noun-noun apposition, nuanced verbal and adverbial forms, prepositions, postpositions, and other deictic constructions. Stress is on the first and alternating syllables. Orthographies inspired by Scandinavian, Finnish, and Russian conventions were first devised and disseminated by missionaries in the sixteenth century. Mid-twentieth century efforts for Nordic Saami solidarity have resulted in refinement and consolidation of these orthographies by linguists and native speakers. This writing system follows the Roman alphabet with supplemental symbols and diacritics.

History and Cultural Relations

Hunting and gathering ancestors of present-day herding, farming, fishing, mixed-economy, and entrepreneurial Saami entered northern Fennoscandia from the east by several routes and separate migrations and over several millennia. During these waves, Saami traversed some areas already sparsely settled by other peoples and languages before establishing themselves in present-day Sapmi. Here, cultural and linguistic contact arose with the later northern movements of Scandinavian, Finnish, and Russian peoples in the current era. Earliest contacts in the historic period came through traders, tax collectors, and missionaries. Periods of intense proselytization and forced assimilation led some individual Saami as well as whole regional groups into the dominant national culture and language, facilitated by the phenotypic indistinguishability of the Saami. More pluralistic national policies in the late twentieth century have stemmed the trend of assimilation. Saami today have full rights as citizens and participate in the same educational, religious, and political institutions as other members of their dominant cultures, at the same time as they actively champion their ethnic status.


Saami settlements range in size and permanence, since part of the population is seasonally nomadic. More permanent Villages and towns range from a few families to a few thousand individuals. In the latter case, Saami inhabitants may be in the minority, being interspersed with members of the dominant culture, some of very recent entry. Both encampments and settlements are predicated on local resource utilization, and are often along waterways affording access by boat in summer and by sled and snowmobile on winter ice. Contemporary transportation relaxes these constraints on settlement, at the same time as social conventions such as schooling and consumer habits impose other demands and opportunities leading to centralization. In the literature, occasionally "Village" refers to a reindeer-herding, an administrative, or a Territorial unit, rather than to a settlement per se.

Various forms of permanent and portable housing exist, often juxtaposed in the same settlement or even on the same household plot. Earlier types of construction include tents, sod huts, and frame dwellings, and these persist as homes (or are diverted to other purposes such as storage of food and equipment, smoking of meat and fish, or work stations). Contemporary homes are built to national standards, with central heating and running water; social life centers on the kitchen. Particularly in the more mobile reindeer-breeding segment of the population, some families manage more than one permanent dwelling and numerous portable ones. The tents and huts are round, organized around a central, usually open, fire. Any bare ground will be covered first with birch twigs and then by reindeer hides. Small items such as cooking utensils are stored in one or more chests opposite the entry.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The reindeer is best described as semidomesticated and half wild. Dogs assistPage 221  |  Top of Article in reindeer herding and are sometimes kept as pets. Less frequently, goats may provide milk for household consumption. Commercial farmers may raise sheep and cattle. Pets other than dogs are seldom encountered. Originally hunters, especially of wild reindeer, some Saami converted to domestic reindeer breeding in the most recent half-millennium. Today, several forms of reindeer management, all essentially oriented to a cash market, support as much as 35 percent of the Population in some regions, while other regions have only some combination of farming, fishing, hunting, and commercial activity. Even though reindeer management is a minority Occupation of this ethnic minority group, it has largely shaped the stereotype of Saamihood and has been recognized in law as the only justification for special Saami rights. Through both indigenous identification with the reindeer and extrinsic policies controlling but also privileging reindeer management, this occupation continues to be an emblem of the Saami despite some ambivalence and even resentment by the sedentary majority of Saami and other northern dwellers. Farming centers on sheep- and bovine-meat production and some dairy cattle; these animals require shelter and provisioning up to eight months a year. No grains other than barley thrive at these latitudes, but potatoes have been grown since their arrival in the early 1800s. Freshwater fishing focuses on salmon, char, trout, and whitefish, the smaller species available year-round and not just in the open water of summer. Ocean fishing brings in greater quantities of cod, halibut, haddock, coalfish, and sole. Some Saami hunt ptarmigan, small mammals, European elk, and reindeer predators. Wild berries, abundant in season, are collected by all.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Reindeer hide, antler, and bone provide raw materials for footwear, clothing, and utensils. Saami men etch distinctive decorations on the antler sheaths of their knives. Wood is also an important material, especially burls from birch for the carving of shallow cups and containers. Basketry and root-weaving artisans execute utilitarian and decorative wares, and other specialists spin pewter thread to be sewn onto leather and fabric. All these naturally harvested products and manufactures are used in the Household; they are also sold commercially and used in barter Between sedentary and nomadic Saami and among Saami generally, with local and distant non-Saami, and with tourists. The post-World-War II road system has promoted the increase of communications, services, circulation of goods, tourism, and nonindigenous resource extraction. Larger towns have local shops and national chains as well as municipal offices, slaughterhouses, handicraft centers, and museums.

Division of Labor. Today, the sexual division of labor is both more and less pronounced than in earlier times. Reindeer herding and husbandry now falls more into the hands of men, while women are tied down by the need to maintain and utilize the conveniences of modern housing, compulsory schooling for their children, and transportation. In the farming sector, women do most chores with seasonal assistance by men, who may spend other seasons in hunting, fishing, and/or wage labor. Overall, women do the majority of crafts with soft materials, men with hard materials; men slaughter; both genders cook and tend children; men control snowmobiles and women cars. It is common for at least one member of each family to contribute a wage income to the household economy. Higher education and nontraditional professions especially attract sedentary men and nomadic women.

Land Tenure. The Saami reindeer-grazing regions of Fennoscandia are divided into administrative units, only sometimes commensurate with traditional utilization practices. The nation-states grant the Saami special resource privileges (including reindeer grazing, hunting, fishing, and use of timber) on these crown and public lands. However, state ownership of these lands is still contested by Saami organizations. Saami immemorial rights of usufruct have been confirmed in a number of important court cases. The issue of Saami land rights has continually been investigated by government Commissions and brought before international courts of law. With but few exceptions, reindeer management is a right reserved for Saami in Norway and Sweden. Any Finnish citizen living in the Finnish reindeer herding region has the right to manage reindeer. On the Kola Peninsula, Saami herders mix with those of other native herding peoples.


Kin Groups and Descent. Traditionally, the basic kin group in the reindeer-management sector has been based on a flexible and seasonally fluctuating affiliation, usually consisting of consanguineal kin of the same generation living in a loosely defined territory. This kin group is called a siida. Riations of the siida organization persist today, though often subsumed by larger extrinsic units. Individuals resort to a kindred-type structure in locating friends, mates, assistance, and godparents. Descent is bilateral.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is bifurcate in first ascending generation, with special terms for mother's older and younger sisters and for father's older and younger brothers. Cousins are classified as semisiblings, both differentiated by gender. Classificatory grandmother and grandfather terms generalize when addressing and referring to older Persons. Affines have marked terms. Most individuals will be related to each other by more than one consanguineal, affinal, or fictive kinship link.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous. Sometimes cross cousins or double cross cousins marry, which is advantageous for nucleation of herding groups. Constraints on marriage include compatibility of the partners' subsistence bases. The merging of two large reindeer livestock holdings or two very small holdings would each be marginally viable arrangements (given some combination of labor requirements, pasturage availability, and herd controllability), as would be the Marriage of two persons having the responsibilities associated with ultimogeniture, or two persons committed to incommensurable livelihoods. Within these limits, individuals Usually choose their own mates, marrying sometimes after a family has been started. Postmarital residence is neolocal, although flexible, as in the case of an ultimogeniture heir apparent, who remains at home. When a newly formed family continues in the subsistence livelihood of one or another of the spouses, they reside so as to take advantage of their familiarity with the area. Divorce seldom occurs, either formally or informally.

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Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is the nuclear family, from which individuals disperse and regroup (also across household lines) owing to activities requiring constant mobility.

Inheritance. In reindeer-breeding families, each Individual, regardless of age or gender, owns livestock. Saami Inheritance is constrained by the various practices of the dominant society. Following Saami tradition, however, inheritance of parental dwellings, plots, livestock, resource-utilization locations, and other wealth—as well as the responsibility of caring for elderly parents—will commonly fall to the youngest child.

Socialization. Children learn at their own pace through opportunistic imitation. They are seldom explicitly instructed or disciplined. Versatility and individuality are rewarded.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Saami society is open, fluid, acephalous, and relatively egalitarian. Members of the reindeer-breeding sector enjoy higher prestige within the society and more attention from without. In some regions dominated by non-Saami, the ranking has placed the reindeer breeders last. In their core areas, the nomadic and sedentary sectors integrate symbiotically. Saami reside in parliamentary democracies with and without constitutional monarchies, as well as in the former USSR. When expeditious, Saami can appear to defer to the national majority culture.

Political Organization. In earlier times, the largest though noncorporate group, the siida, was based on resource utilization, and its consensual leader was, and still can be, active, but only in unusual circumstances. Although poorly represented in the governing structures of contemporary society, Saami have initiated a number of their own general- and special-interest organizations, the latter responsive to subsistence interests. Saami have also been active participants in the fourth-world movement since its inception in the early 1970s.

Social Control. Until the eighteenth century, social Control was informal and relatively nonproblematic. In the absence of any hierarchical regulating mechanisms, some disturbances such as reindeer theft could escalate. With the court and religious systems of the encroaching dominant societies, Saami found alternatives in formal administration and litigation while maintaining informal controls through persuasion, gossip, sorcery, and relocation (forced or voluntary).

Conflict. Saami history reveals little endemic conflict other than competition, often between reindeer-breeding units. The exception was a massacre in 1852 in which the two victims were non-Saami. In recent times, however, conflict is more prominent, centering on protests of encroachments on Saami areas through resource extraction (hydroelectric power, mining, logging), by communication networks (roads, snowmobile routes, boat and air lines, and power lines), through usurpation of land (by recreational, tourist, and military activities), and by pollution (most recently nuclear contamination from Chernobyl).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The ecstatic shamanic tradition has been subsumed but not utterly eradicated by state churches, whose missionizing nominally converted most Saami by the end of the eighteenth century. Most Saami belong to the evangelical Lutheran faith of the dominant culture, while some retain a nineteenth-century syncretic institution named Laestadianism after its charismatic founder.

According to Saami traditions, various spirits reside in and around prominent geographical locales, such as natural outcroppings and encampment sites. The shamanic drum of old commemorated a host of cosmological forces associated with space, time, weather, animals, and social categories. Saami folklore contains abundant references to people of the underworld and a giant troll-like figure. Other spirits correspond to once-living beings, as do ghosts of infanticide casualties.

Religious Practitioners. Male pastors from the dominant society service most Lutheran churches in Saami areas; Laestadian practitioners are usually recruited from the Saami and Finnish populations. Laestadian practitioners also perform in the folk-medicine arena, and are male. Self-styled shamans of both genders serve the medical and sorcery needs of their kin, friends, neighbors, and trading partners. Not all healers are shamans, however, and not all shamans are healers.

Ceremonies. The most elaborate ceremony in former times, congruent with that of other circumpolar peoples, was associated with the bear hunt. The Saami observe the regular Christian life-cycle rituals. Laestadian meetings are held in some of the same places as church services and also in secular buildings and homes. Healing rituals, whether Laestadian or shamanic, usually take place in the home of a patient or during a meeting.

Arts. Most utilitarian arts and crafts are done by all, while specialists such as knife makers, basket makers, and silversmiths render decorative wares. Summer tourism and yearround exports have become important in the local economy. To protect themselves against imitation, Saami handicraft professionals mark their produce with a special seal. A number of Saami have attained international recognition in nontraditional graphic art forms and literature. The vocal arts are represented by the chantlike yoik, which has become a recognized musical form.

Medicine. Indigenous beliefs and practices (such as the stopping of blood) are grounded in the knowledge and skills of the patient, a family member, or a shaman. Remedies are readily available in nature for human, reindeer, and dog maladies. In addition and within limits, these sparsely settled outlying regions receive medical and veterinary services in line with those of the rest of the country.

Death and Afterlife. Saami have a higher-than-average incidence of cardiovascular disease; males in their early years are at risk for accidental death, and in earlier times, a certain toll was taken by childbirth. Barring such mortality, Saami are often active in their 80s. In the past, if burdensome to the family, the elderly boarded with sedentary people, wandered off, or were left behind to die. The funeral and burial follow national custom, usually Lutheran. Saami do not speculate much about afterlife. In pre-Christian and earlier ChristianPage 223  |  Top of Article times, when frozen or rocky terrain precluded burial, interment or temporary interment utilized trees and cairns.


Anderson, Myrdene (1978). Saami Ethnoecology: Resource Management in Norwegian Lapland. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.

Beach, Hugh (1981). Case of Tuorpon Saameby in Northern Sweden. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology, 3. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Ingold, Tim (1976). Skolt Lapps Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paine, Robert (1965). Coast Lapp Society. Vol. 2, Study of Economic Development and Social Values. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Pelto, Pertti J. (1962). Individualism in Skolt Lapp Society. Kansatieteellinen Arkisto, 16. Helsinki: Suomen Muinaismuistoyhdistys.

Vorren, Ornulv, and Ernest Manker (1962). Lapp Life and Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3458000698